The Guardian 23 February, 2005

Attack in Port Augusta

A Police operation which claims to be targeting street crime and which involves STAR group officers has been launched in the South Australian city of Port Augusta. It has been labelled racist by civil libertarians, Aboriginal leaders and local opponents because it enforces plans hatched by the City Council to disrupt the annual migration of Anangu Pitjantjatjara people to the coastal area from the far north of the state.

Council CEO John Stephens made comments at a recent meeting between representatives of the Police, Council and Aboriginal community which have led the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM) to call for his sacking. Among other things, Mr Stephens is reported to have said, "They're not welcome in Port Augusta and they should get back where they come from." He later said that he was referring only to offenders who exhibit anti-social behaviour and who come before the courts.

Neil Gillespie of the ALRM is planning to lodge a formal complaint against the City Council with the South Australian Government. "This is appalling behaviour. If there are issues, they should be resolved in a more respectful way, rather than this Gestapo-type mentality", he told ABC News last week.

"Operation Return" involves the bailing of offenders to their home address a measure clearly aimed at members of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara community who gather each year on a strip of coast now earmarked for development. The Council intends moving people out of this meeting place with arrests if necessary to ensure that they no longer congregate there.

A local Minister with the Uniting Church Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress was arrested recently when he refused to comply with a Police instruction to move on during a meeting with members of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara on the site.

A rally of local people in solidarity with the Aboriginal community was also held at the location but grave fears are still held for their safety when the STAR Group Police move in. There are reports of a vigilante group of non-Indigenous men attacking Aboriginal people in Port Augusta.

These latest tensions follow on a controversy unleashed last year when the local Chamber of Commerce proposed a ban on unaccompanied children in shops during school hours. Australian Council of Civil Liberties spokeswoman Clair O'Connor pointed out that the move was aimed at Port Augusta's Aboriginal population:

"It's sad that people are in an environment where the Education Department isn't able to do something about that, but the answer is not barring them from public places The answer is to deal with the systemic problem of poverty, of disenfranchisement, of lack of health services, lack of proper educational services within the Indigenous community. You deal with the problem, you don't punish children."

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